Her eyes are a pale hazel, her hair a deep auburn, delicately framing a slightly smiling face in curls. She sits pink-cheeked, in a black dress among a background of sepia and Van Dyke brown, her body slightly twisted to her right, though her gaze is directly toward those who turn toward her. She wears a dark satin ribbon around her neck. Its deep ebony color contrasting starkly with the paleness of her flesh. The cut of her dress is familiar from countless images of women in the late 18th and early 19th century. The fabric, delicately embracing her upper arms, drops ever so slightly to reveal the anatomy of her shoulders, not in a coquettish or absent-minded manner, but a manner most respectful of her place. Gathered around her and lying softly across her forearms in a translucent shawl, which wraps in several layers around her wrist as she supports a portfolio with her left hand.
The portfolio is the only distinguishing prop in what would otherwise have been a very modest portrait. We might assume the deep purple black of her dress marks her as someone in a period of mourning, though of this we cannot be certain. Her right hand steadies the top of the portfolio, about mid-way down its length. She marks the opening with her index finger, burying it between the loose sheets of paper held between deep crimson boards, the string closure dangling loosely from its open edge.
Found in the attic of a large house in the southern part of the United Kingdom in 2016, her name is lost to us, as is the name of the painter. In truth, they may be “one and the same,” for this could very well be a self-portrait. Over twenty-five women were active as painters in England during the first half of the 19th century. Only a few, however, painted portraits in oil.
In some way, the person we see in Lady Holding A Portfolio best resembles the artist Rolinda Sharples (1793-1838), who lived and worked as a portrait painter in Bristol, England. Rolinda was the daughter of James and Ellen Sharples, both artists, who actively fostered their only daughter’s talent. Rolinda, however, in one of her few self-portraits, depicts herself with brown eyes. The woman depicted in Lady Holding A Portfolio has eyes that pale toward the grey.
Regardless of the identity of the Lady Holding A Portfolio, images of women of professional interest and standing, like the occupational images of early photography, are invaluable for their ability to affirm the dignity of purposeful action, especially in challenging perceptions regarding the role of women. Those of us who love history know the narratives we embrace are always far from complete. Revisiting our historical perspective through the information provided in paintings, drawings and photographs, widens our understanding of history and deepens our expectations of discovery. On view in the Crisp Visual Art Center on the campus of Culver Academies during Woman’s History Month, Lady Holding a Portfolio, reminds us of the simple truth of history: there are many stories yet to tell.